Podcast Episodes

The 14th Colony

Everyone knows America’s legendary origins — 13 colonies fighting off the tyranny of the British Empire to form our Union — but did you know there was, if only for a brief time, an extra-legal 14th colony? If that blows your mind, you’ll be even more astounded to find out its name … it was called Transylvania.

It was made possible by a famous name, too, a man called Daniel Boone. On this episode of America’s National Parks, The Transylvania Purchase, a land which laid its gateway at a gap in the Allegheny Mountains, now known as Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, where the borders of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee meet.


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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park – National Park Service Website

The Cumberland Gap Tunnel – Official Website

The Wilderness Road – The History Channel

The Colony of Transylvania – The North Carolina Booklet, Vol. 3 No. 9 (Jan. 1904)


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Everyone knows America’s legendary origins — 13 colonies fighting off the tyranny of the British Empire to form our Union — but did you know there was, if only for a brief time, an extra-legal 14th colony? Actually, there were a few other colonies like Nova Scotia and East and West Florida that didn’t join the revolution and remained loyal to the crown, but I’m talking about something different. This is a colony that was created by a private company that lobbied the Continental Congress to join the union that would become the United States. If that blows your mind, you’ll be even more astounded to find out its name … it was called Transylvania. Yeah, I didn’t hear about that in school either.

In fact, had events turned a bit differently, we could be eating Transylvania Fried Chicken instead of KFC, and horses might be running the Transylvania Derby.

It was made possible by a famous name, too, a man called Daniel Boone. On this episode of America’s National Parks, The Transylvania Purchase, a land which laid its gateway at a gap in the Allegheny Mountains, now known as Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, where the borders of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee meet.

A word before we begin: In this episode, we’re going to discuss treaties with indigenous people, people who already inhabited these lands, and conflicts with the so-called settlers. Clearly, people inhabited these territories long before colonizers arrived. The land wasn’t “purchased” from anybody. It was taken.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.


In the early 1700s, the Allegheny Mountains were the greatest obstacle for settlers aspiring to reach the west. In 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker, an explorer, found a cut between two mountains. A crossing that would, for centuries to come, allow passage for travelers from around the world.

Through this gap was a vast tract of lands utilized and claimed by several tribes, comprising most of modern-day Kentucky and much of Tenessee. In 1774, Richard Henderson, a judge from North Carolina, organized a land speculation company with a number of other prominent people. The company was called the Transylvania Company, and its intent was to establish a new British colony by purchasing the lands from the Cherokee, who were the primary inhabitants of much of the area and claimed hunting rights in other sections of it.

Henderson hired Daniel Boone to blaze a trail through the mountain gap, set up towns, and negotiate with indigenous people in the area. Boone had been in southeast Kentucky long before the founding of any settlements, and he traveled to the Cherokee towns to inform them of the upcoming negotiations.

In March 1775, Henderson and Boone met with more than 1,200 Cherokee at Sycamore Shoals to sign a treaty procuring all the land south of the Ohio River and between the Cumberland River, the Cumberland Mountains, and the Kentucky River — 20 million acres.

One Cherokee chief, named Dragging Canoe, refused to sign at Sycamore Shoals even though his father did. But the majority won out. Dragging Canoe left the treaty grounds taking those who were loyal to him south, eventually landing in the remote area of the Chickamauga Creek (near modern-day Chattanooga). There they established eleven towns which resisted settlers for decades. The location gave the group the name “Chickamauga.”

Henderson believed that a British legal opinion had made his private purchase of the land legal, but the Transylvania Company’s investment was in violation of both Virginia and North Carolina law, as both colonies laid claim to parts of the land. A royal proclamation also prohibited the private purchase of American Indian land and the establishment of any colony not sanctioned by the Crown. But Henderson proceeded anyway.

Daniel Boone was originally from Pennsylvania and migrated south. He was what was known as a Longhunter, someone who hunted and trapped among the western frontiers of Virginia for long periods of time. Boone would sometimes be gone for months, even years, before returning home from his expeditions. The Kentucky area was alluring to Boone because of its large salt brine lakes. Salt was essential for preserving meat on these long hunts.

Along with 35 axemen, Boone cut a 200-mile trail from Kingsport, Tennessee through the forests and mountains across the gap. It was hardly more than a path, rough and muddy.

The Shawnee laid claim to some of the land purchased from the Cherokee, but were not involved in the Sycamore Shoals Treaty. They viewed Boone and his men as invaders. While camped 15 miles from their final destination of the Kentucky River, just before daybreak, a group of Shawnee, slinging tomahawks, attacked the sleeping men. Some of the party were killed and a few were wounded, but most escaped into the woods.

When Boone reached the Kentucky River, he established the settlement of Boonesborough (near present-day Lexington, Kentucky), which was intended to be the capital of Transylvania.

The trail was difficult and dangerous. Wagons could not travel it, and still, many settlers began making the journey into the west. Entire communities would often move together over the Wilderness Road to new settlements. Many came on their own accord, refusing to recognize Transylvania’s authority. Along with regular attacks from the Shawnee and Chickamauga tribes, robbers frequented the edges of the route, seeking to pilage weaker pioneers. Defensive log structures called “stations” were built alongside the road with portholes in the walls for firing at attackers. Venomous copperheads and rattlesnakes blended into the undergrowth endangering the people and their livestock.

When Henderson was ready to enter the territory, he led another expedition of 30 horsemen following Boone’s path, widening the road so travelers could bring through wagons. Around 150 pioneers joined them along the way, including some who had been traveling ahead of them, but were retreating from Shawnee attacks further down the road. Some of the streams were flooded, and the pioneers had to swim with their horses.

When Henderson arrived at Boonesborough, just under a hundred people resided there. The settlers were living in a precarious situation. They lacked supplies and shelter, and faced significant hostilities from the Shawnee, and now the Cherokee, too, who had joined with the Shawnee and other tribes in the Cherokee-American war, which would last another 20 years. Still, Henderson urged settlers in the area to establish the colony and hold a constitutional convention.

His plan was for the various settlements throughout Transylvania to send delegates to Boonesborough. In May 1775, under a huge elm tree, a three-day convention assembled. They passed nine measures, drafting a document that built a framework of government, known as the Transylvania Compact, including executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

With that business complete, Henderson returned to North Carolina to petition the Continental Congress to make Transylvania a legally recognized colony. Virginia and North Carolina, who both claimed jurisdiction over the region, did not consent, and the Continental Congress declined to get involved.

Still, the colony existed, if not legally, until just one month before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when the Virginia General Assembly prohibited the Transylvania Land Company from making any demands on settlers in the region.

Over 200,000 pioneers came over the Wilderness Road during this time. Many Scottish, Irish, and German. As the eastern lands were all taken, new immigrants had to push west, enduring severe hardships. Many families would walk hundreds of miles immediately after landing in America, crossing the icy creeks and rivers without shoes or stockings. One year, the weather was so cold that the Kentucky River froze to a depth of two feet. Many of the cattle and hogs froze to death. The settlers had to eat frozen livestock to survive. Often Dragging Canoe’s Chickamauga would ambush the Gap area for weeks at a time.

On July 5, 1776, Boone’s daughter and two other teenaged girls were captured outside Boonesborough by a Shawnee war party, who carried the girls north towards the Ohio lands. Boone led a group of men in pursuit, catching up with them two days later. They ambushed the Shawnee while they were stopped for a meal, rescuing the girls and driving off their captors.

Henry Hamilton, British Lieutenant Governor of Canada, began to recruit American Indian war parties to raid the Kentucky settlements. On April 24, Shawnee Indians, led by Chief Blackfish, attacked Boonesborough, and Daniel Boone was shot in the ankle while outside the fort.

While Boone recovered, Shawnees destroyed the surrounding cattle and crops. With the food supply running low, the settlers needed salt to preserve what meat they had, so in January of 1778, Boone led a party to the salt springs on the Licking River. While out hunting during the expedition, Boone was captured by Blackfish and his warriors. Boon’s party was greatly outnumbered, so he convinced them to surrender to the Shawnee.

Blackfish wanted to continue to Boonesborough and capture it, since it was now defenseless, but Boone convinced him to leave the Women and Children alone for the winter, promising that Boonesborough would surrender willingly in the spring. It was a bluff. So convincing, that many of his men thought he had turned his loyalty toward the British.

On June 16, 1778, Blackfish planned his return with a large force to Boonesborough. Boone learned of the plan and escaped, covering the 160 miles home over just five days on horseback and then by foot after his horse gave out.

During Boone’s absence, his wife and children had returned to North Carolina. Upon his return, some of the men questioned Boone’s loyalty, since after surrendering the salt-making party, he had lived quite happily among the Shawnees for months. He was even taken into one of their families and given the name Big Turtle.

To prove his loyalty, Boone led a raid against the Shawnees across the Ohio River, and then helped defend Boonesborough against a 10-day raid when Blackfish arrived in September.

After the siege, Boon was court-martialed by his fellow townspeople, some of whom still had family members held captive by the Shawnee. After Boone’s testimony, he was found not guilty, but it left him humiliated. He returned to North Carolina to get his family.

Three years after Boone blazed the Wilderness Road, In December 1778, Virginia’s Assembly declared the Transylvania claim void and took possession of the land. Henderson and his partners were given 12 square miles on the Ohio River below the mouth of the Green River as consolation – an area now known as Henderson.

Daniel Boon never returned to Boonesborough. He founded the settlement of Boone’s Station and went into business finding land for new settlers. Settlers now needed to file land claims with Virginia, and Boon would travel to Williamsburg to purchase their land warrants.

He became a leading citizen of Kentucky. When Kentucky was divided into three Virginia counties in 1780, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Fayette County militia, fighting in several revolutionary war battles.

In 1781, he was elected as a representative to the Virginia General Assembly. He traveled to Richmond to take his seat in the legislature, but British captured him and several other legislators near Charlottesville. The British released Boone on parole several days later. After a term in office, he returned to fight in the war, including the Battle of Blue Licks, in which his son Israel was killed. In November 1782, Boone took part in an expedition into Ohio, the last major campaign of the war.


The word Transylvania has little to with Dracula or Eastern Europe. it merely translates to “beyond a pleasant, wooded area.”

That break in the mountains became known as the Cumberland Gap, and it is of global importance. Settlers from around the world chose to pass through it to settle the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains, along with a whole lot of slaves who didn’t have a choice. Nearly 300,000 pioneers journeyed through the nation’s first doorway to the west.

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park was dedicated in 1959. Even then, the area’s importance as a route through the mountains hadn’t changed. 50 years prior, the Bureau of Public Roads built a 2 and a half mile ribbon of crushed, compacted, and rolled limestone highway through Cumberland Mountain to link the towns of Middlesboro, Kentucky, and Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, and the wilderness road later disappeared under U.S. Highway 25E. As the highway became heavily trafficked, accidents became more and more frequent on the winding mountain road, earning it the nickname “Massacre Mountain.”

In an unlikely alliance, conservationists, historians, the park, and highway engineers joined forces to push for a major construction project that would reroute the highway through a tunnel beneath the historic Cumberland Gap.

In 1973, legislation was passed allowing the National Park Service to construct tunnels through Cumberland Mountain in order to remove traffic from the historic corridor and restore the image of the Gap and Wilderness Road.

The project cost $265 million and required rerouting two U.S. highways, the construction of twin 4,600-foot tunnels, five miles of new 4-lane approaches to the tunnels, two highway interchanges, and 10 bridges, including a 200-foot railroad bridge and two pedestrian bridges on hiking trails.

In 1985, Construction began on a pilot tunnel that was 10 feet wide and 10 feet high, drilled from both sides of the mountain. It took two years to drill, and revealed springs that produced 450 gallons of water every minute varying rock and clay, massive caverns, and a 30′ deep underground lake.

It took another 10 years to build the actual tunnels, which were are lined with a waterproof PVC membrane. A massive water management and drainage system was designed and installed, and water quality was constantly monitored during the construction process.

The tunnels opened to traffic in October 1996, and the section of U.S. Highway 25E was closed, and the asphalt removed. Now, there’s just a six-foot-wide trail—not too different from the one carved by Daniel Boone.18,000 vehicles passed through the park on an average day before the tunnels were built, now double the amount passes through the tunnels.

Today, you can discover the rich history of the area while experiencing the stunning nature, from spectacular overlooks to cascading waterfalls, along an extensive trail system that traverses Cumberland Gap National Historical Park’s 24,000 acres.

A guided tour takes visitors a mile down the Wilderness Road to the majestic Gap Cave. Another takes you to the historic Hensley Settlement, where the stories of early pioneers and settlers come alive in the numerous historic buildings and structures.

Wildlife is abundant in the park, including deer, beaver, fox, bobcat, bear, and over 150 species of birds. Rock formations abound and mountain streams flow over them to create beautiful waterfalls.

The 160-site Wilderness Road Campground is located 3 miles from the park visitor center off of Highway 58 in Virginia. Electrical hookups are available at 41 of the sites, and the campground provides hot showers and potable water. Campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Backcountry camping is available in some of the more remote, wilderness areas.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

Podcast Episodes

Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar

Deep within Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, one can find so much more than rock formations. The shale-capped mass of 400 known miles of caverns holds the history of America, told by the Black enslaved cave guides that made it one of the country’s top tourist attractions, then and now.


Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

or Download this episode (right click and save)

Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

In Kentucky, a Family at the Center of the Earth
A 2014 in-depth interview with Jerry Bransford and New York Times reporter Kenan Christiansen.


Jerry Bransford’s dream is to build a memorial in the Bransford cemetery at Mammoth Cave as a tribute to all the past slave guides and the entire Bransford family, especially Mat and Nick. He also would like to pass on his stories and memories to his future descendants utilizing the cemetery and memorial. You can the website to contribute, and it’s also full of much more detailed information on the Bransford family history at Mammoth.

Ranger Lore: The Occupational Folklife of Parks – Jerry Bransford Discusses Family Legacy

A YouTube interview with Jerry Bransford about visiting Mammoth as a child with his family:

Mammoth Cave National Park Website

Info on all of the cave tours, camping, and other activities at Mammoth Cave National Park.



According to legend, at the turn of the 19th Century, a Kentucky hunter named John Houchins found a black bear, and shot. He failed to kill the bear, and it ran, wounded, while Houchins gave chase until it led him to the entrance of a cave. Some say the bear chased Houchins, who, either way, is credited with the modern discovery of a cave system that sprawls for nearly 400 documented miles, so large that it is yet to be fully mapped, and may go on for up to 1000 miles.

On this episode of America’s National parks, the world’s largest cave system, Mammoth Cave.

On the ceilings and walls of Mammoth, one can find thousands of names written in smoke from a time when such a thing was encouraged. One of the oldest and most prolific names — sometimes written backward — is simply “Stephen.” Stephen Bishop, Mammoth’s most famous explorer, would take his candle to the ceiling and trace his name, sometimes in reverse due to the mirror he was looking in to avoid the wax dipping in his eyes.

In 1838, the 17-year-old Bishop was brought to explore and lead expeditions into Mammoth by the cave’s new owner Franklin Gorin, a lawyer from nearby Glasgow, Kentucky, who purchased the property, seeing the cave’s potential as a public attraction. Previously, the cave had been used as a Saltpetre mine during the War of 1812, when slaves mined valuable potassium nitrate, a primary ingredient in gunpowder.

Bishop quickly got to work, guiding tourists and exploring the depths of the cave, and creating its first map. This is what Gorin had to say about Bishop: he was “handsome, good-humored, intelligent, the most complete of guides, the presiding genius of this territory. He has occupied himself so frequently in exploring the various passages of the cavern, that there is now no living being who knows it so well,” Gorin said. “The discoveries made have been the result of his courage, intelligence, and untiring zeal. He is extremely attentive and polite, particularly so to the ladies, and he runs over what he has to say with such ease and readiness, and mingles his statement of facts with such lofty language, that all classes, male and female, listen with respect, and involuntarily smile at his remark. His business as a guide brought him so often in contact with the intellectual and scientific, that he has become acquainted with every geological specimen in the cave.”

Stephen wore a chocolate-colored slouch hat, a jacket for warmth, and striped trousers. Over his shoulder on a strap swung a canister of lamp oil. In one hand he carried a basket of provisions for the longer trips – fried chicken, apples, biscuits, and often a bottle of white lightning for refreshment. In the other hand, he carried an oil lantern – a tin dish holding oil and a wick, with a small heat shield held above the flame by wires.

A visitor described Stephen bishop’s “perfectly chiseled features,” his “keen, dark eye and glossy hair, and mustache. He is the model of a guide” the visitor said, “quick, daring, enthusiastic, persevering, with a lively appreciation of the wonders he shows, and a degree of intelligence unusual in one of his class…I think no one can travel under his guidance without being interested in the man, and associating him in memory with the realm over which he is chief ruler.”

But a ruler of Mammoth, Bishop was not. Quite the opposite, Stephen Bishop, like the saltpeter miners before him, was an enslaved, black man.

Each week, on the America’s National Parks Podcast, we plan to focus on a specific story or two behind a National Park Service unit. But for this, our first episode, The epic tale of Mammoth Cave was too juicy to pass up. It’s really the story of America, warts and all. We begin, as most National Park histories do, with the first people to call America home.


The hunter John Houchins may be credited with Mammoth Cave’s modern discovery, but Stephen Bishop quickly found that man had been deep within the cave long before him.

In the summer of his first year in the cave, Stephen began to probe the obscure passageways. In what was then known as the Main Cave, behind an enormous rock called the “Giant’s Coffin,” he squeezed into a small room and down through a crack into a maze of passages beneath. Here he found the fragments of a burned cane torch and grapevine ties left by natives who had explored Mammoth Cave long before.

Nearly one hundred years later, in 1935, Civilian Conservation Corps workers Grover Campbell and Lyman Cutliff were exploring a new passageway. They climbed a ledge and discovered the unnerving scene of an ancient tragedy. A human head and arm, the only visible parts of a body pinned beneath a six-ton boulder. A digging stick lay nearby, the cause of the boulder’s collapse – its owner had dug too deeply.

Like the cane torches found by Stephen Bishop, the twenty-three-hundred-year-old body had been well preserved by the cave’s steadfast temperature and humidity, and by the salt in the soil.

Thousands of ancient artifacts have been found in Mammoth — gourd bowls, pottery, woven cloth, and a handful of petroglyphs. From 4,000 years ago until nearly 2,000 years ago, Native Americans explored at least six miles of the cave, until one day, for reasons unknown, they disappeared.


Stephen Bishop and the other slave guides such as Materson and Nick Bransford continued to escort the curious along their choice of two routes. The short route, a 6-hour journey, and the long route, a 14-hour journey, took visitors through all the curious formations, rooms, and obscurities Mammoth had to offer.

For a nickel, they’d lash a candle to a stick and write your name upon the ceiling. Theywould journey down Echo River in small boats and entertain tourists with songs in a round with the echo of the cave.

On one such tour, Bishop’s boat full of travelers capsized, and all the oil lamps were extinguished. In complete darkness, he led his party through the neck-deep water for five hours, until Materson Bransford arrived to save them.

Materson went by Mat, with one T. He was the son of affluent Tennessean Thomas Bransford and a slave woman named Hannah. He began guiding at Mammoth Cave in 1838, and ultimately became the property of his own half-brother after the death of his father. He married a slave girl named Parthena, and built a home for her and their four children. As the children grew, however, Mat was powerless to stop his wife’s owner from selling first his two daughters, and then his youngest son.

Mat Bransford

Many did not view such an act as horrendous, including opponents of slavery. In the 1860’s Mat guided abolitionist John Fowler Rusling on a tour. Rusling remarked, “I don’t suppose you missed these children much? You colored people never do they say.” Mat was quick to inform him differently.

Just months before the civil war ended and slaves were emancipated, Mat used his life savings from cave tour tips to buy back one of his daughters, who was fifteen years old and pregnant at the time. His other two children were never found.

Mat remained a Mammoth Cave guide for the remainder of his life. His Eldest son Henry became a guide, and then his grandson, too, whose name was also Matt, but with two “T”s. Matt with two Ts Bransford decided that, after the civil war, Black people shouldn’t just work Mammoth Cave, they should visit it. Blacks were still not welcome in most establishments. They were not allowed to be on the same tours with whites or stay in the same hotel. Matt traveled to larger cities to appeal to the African American community to visit the world-famous Cave. He led Special tours for them, and provided lodging and meals for black visitors with his wife Zemmie at their home called the Bransford Resort. White visitors had been touring Mammoth for a century, and now, thanks to the younger Matt Bransford, Black visitors could share the experience.


There are more cave attractions throughout the Midwest than you can shake a stick at, but Mammoth is different.

“A grand, gloomy and peculiar place,” Bishop called it. Instead of the elaborate configurations of drip formations that you’ll find elsewhere, Mammoth is full of gigantic rooms formed by ancient underground rivers that sculpted the sandstone and limestone, capped by a shale roof. It’s more labyrinths and domes than wedding cakes.

As the industrial revolution raged on, railways brought more and more visitors to Mammoth. By the 1880s, tens of thousands of yearly visitors were arriving by a rail line built specifically to accomplish that task. The Mammoth Cave Railroad would operate successfully for 50 years, making runs from Glasgow Junction every 25 minutes in the summer.

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the great National Park idea had taken hold. Half a dozen parks had been proclaimed by Congress, including one cave — South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park. Interest in protecting Mammoth in the same fashion began to spring up, but by 1920, a war of economics had broken out in the Kentucky Cave Country. The Mammoth Cave Estate and dozens of other caves that had been discovered in the area competed for the massive profit in showing tourists the wonders below the earth.

Colossal Cave, Long Cave, Short’s Cave, Great Onyx Cave, Indian Cave, Salts Cave and Crystal Cave all tried to snag motorists bound for the world-famous Mammoth, often by stopping them on the road using ringers dressed as authorities saying that Mammoth was the other direction, or that Mammoth was flooded.

An oilman named George Morrison believed that the Cave’s length extended beyond the surface boundaries of the Mammoth Cave Estate. He searched for clues in the cave and above ground until he got word of a sinkhole where kids played in the summer because cool air came up from below.

Morrison bought the property and drilled until he found a cave that was revealed to have a direct connection to the rest of Mammoth. He dubbed his site “the New Entrance to Mammoth Cave” and began selling tickets to motorists on their way to the Old Entrance.

The Kentucky cave wars were not without casualty. When cave owner Floyd Collins was exploring for a more profitable cave and became lodged underground in 1925, a circus atmosphere developed around his entrapment, as the story drew national attention. Thousands of sightseers descended on Cave City, hawkers sold food and souvenirs. Reporters drafted hourly updates for the nation, including aviator Charles Lindbergh, who delivered news reports by air as federal troops were dispatched to keep order.

Rescue attempts failed, and Collins died on his eighteenth day below the surface.

Rampant commercialism aside, Kentuckians held a deep pride for the caves at Mammoth, and many initiatives were floated to transition the area into a National Park. For 30 years, surveys were taken up, bills were introduced and passed, land was purchased, and finally, in 1941, Mammoth Cave National Park was dedicated.


On Memorial Day and 4th of July weekends, a young Jerry Bransford — the great-great-grandson of a Mat Bransford — would ride the half-hour drive from his home in Glasgow to visit Mammoth with his family in the back seat of their ’49 Chevy.

On those holiday family Picnics, Jerry’s father, David Bransford Sr, would tell him the history of his family at Mammoth — how the cave is a part of their heritage, even though they still weren’t allowed to go inside the hotel for refreshments. The staff, who still knew Jerry’s father, would give them ice creams and Cokes at the back door.

Post-slavery, the Bransfords, and other black men were still the preeminent tour guides at Mammoth, famous even, but when the cave became a National Park, those guides had to look for new jobs. Many of their homes were forced to be sold to the government. The great act of protecting the underground wonderland turned away the people who knew it best.

When Jerry retired — nearly 200 years after the slaves mined the saltpeter for the War of 1812 — he began discussions with the National Park Service to return the Bransford family to the park. Jerry Bransford is now a 5th generation cave guide, and a National Park Service Ranger. His mission? To tell the stories of the great Black cave guides who were so instrumental in the discovery and interpretation of Mammoth Cave, so that they should never be forgotten again.


Today, when Jerry Bransford gives tours, he always notices the names scratched into the walls that were made by his ancestors. He’s found 14, including, the one that says simply, “Mat 1850.”

“Whenever I see a signature from my kin, I feel awed by what they did,” he told the New York Times. “But when I see Mat’s, it just knocks me down. I don’t know how anyone can have their kids taken away and never get them back.”

Mammoth Cave is one of the most conveniently located national parks, along I-65 just 30 miles outside of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Several different daily cave tours provide visitors with a wide range of sights to see, including the Gothic Avenue Tour, where you can see Stephen Bishop’s candle-written signature, and hundreds more. The more adventurous visitors can climb, crawl, and squeeze through the 6-hour Wild Cave Tour, seeing places only a small number of humans have visited. Along with the half-dozen or so paid cave tours, visitors can experience a wide array of above-ground activities, including, hiking, biking, kayaking and horseback riding. There’s still a small hotel on-site, as well as several primitive campgrounds. Several private campgrounds are just a stones’ throw from the park as well.

Jerry Bransford still gives cave tours on a seasonal schedule — he swore our three sons in as Mammoth Cave Junior Rangers. He’s raising money for a memorial to better honor the many Bransfords and other Black cave guides buried at the simple cemetery in the park. You can donate at bransfordmemorial.com.


Music clips from this episode ar provided from artists via a Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0). You can check out their full works below: